Ventura: Albania will be tougher than Spain

Giampiero Ventura thinks Albania will provide Italy with their toughest test in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying, but is hopeful the calcio-impassioned Sicilians will tip the game in his side’s favour.

Spain head Group G in European qualifying, above Italy on goal difference. Israel are one point behind, with Albania four off the pace in fourth. Italy still have to play away to Spain and host Israel, but it’s their next preliminary at La Favorita in Palermo that Ventura sees as their most examining.

“We expect the most difficult match of the group and the most important of the two-year campaign,” said the 68-year-old former Torino coach. “If we don’t beat Albania, it would become very difficult to win the group – not even winning in Spain would be enough."

Italy have an excellent record at La Favorita. They have won 11 and drawn one of their 13 fixtures there. La Nazionale’s only loss in the Sicilian capital was 2-1 to Croatia in UEFA EURO 1996 qualifying, when a volley and a header from Davor Suker undid a team including Paolo Maldini, Roberto Baggio and Pierluigi Casiraghi.

“The help of the fans will be essential,” said Ventura. “I’d like to see the stadium full that day. When I came to this stadium as a coach I was always greeted with difficulty because the stadium was packed.

“Palermo has always shown great affection for the national team, and I hope Italy’s game will be a good omen for the club, which is going through a difficult time.”

I Rosanero are bottom of Serie A, having taken just six points from a possible 45 this season. Albania coach Gianni De Biasi played for Palermo alongside Claudio Ranieri in the 1980s.

Italy won their only encounter with Albania, in Ventura’s native Genoa in 2014, with Stefano Okaka getting the only goal with a late, deflected header.